Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Underpinnings of Creativity

"Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time." - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Once again I feel compelled to bring an OPB (Other People's Blog) into the conversation.  Yesterday I was kibitzing around Rachelle Gardner's blog and read her post on Being the Gatekeeper of Your Mind.  It started interestingly, and it ended interestingly, but it horrified me in the middle when she said:

But I’ve realized that maybe this constant consumption of bite-sized information and ideas actually impedes our own thoughtful creativity rather than stimulating it. It seems the more I read from diverse sources — no matter how much I love it — the less I am able to settle down and focus for extended periods of time on a single thought.

Now, I expressed my disagreement, and I was pretty thoroughly outvoted by the fawning adoration of my fellow commenters on the blog, and that's fine.  But I'm struck by what it is that actually causes--or inhibits--creativity.  While it's not clear from the quote I gave whether RG is blaming the impediment of creativity on the volume, the diversity, or both, of the inward flow of information, later comments make it clear that it's both but that she's primarily interested in reducing the diversity.

That's what bothered me.

It bothered me not, mind you, with respect to her creativity.  Heavens, no!  Whatever you find makes you the most creative, by all means go for it.  If you're at your most creative while listening to an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner, then get one.  If you identify something that is impeding you, similarly reduce that thing.  I'm certainly in no position to tell anyone anything about their own creativity.

I am, however, in a position to look at my own creativity, and while I agree that volume of incoming information can hurt the outward flow, I think a diversity of inflow actually helps.  Me, that is.

What, I wondered, do others say?

A couple of years ago I bought a book on a recommendation of a fellow traveler: Zing!: Seven Creativity Practices for Educators and Students by Pat Mora.  It's a good book with some good basics, but it doesn't really address much of where creativity comes from.  The book does contain a chapter titled Enjoy Quiet, and the primary message there seems to be one of letting the brain have the space it needs to run amok.  It's a volume thing, then, to Mora.

Unsatisfied, I decided to check out a more scholarly source.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a name I'll refer to as MC from here on out for my fingies' sake) is a noted psychologist who's done quite a bit of study on the topic of creativity.  I haven't had time to read an entire work of his yet, but I did read an excerpt from Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.  Fascinating work, that is.  He deals with the sources of creativity, the cycle of creativity, and how both youth and age affect your creativity.

He'd probably say RG and I are both right.

In his work, he divides the creative process into five steps:
  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Insight
  4. Evaluation
  5. Elaboration
In exactly zero of these steps does MC say you have to be quiet or immersed in silence.

That said, in the preparation step, according to MC's work, you must become familiar with a wide variety of inputs.  One area of input is information related to the topic itself; in order for insight (or synthesis, as Bloom would refer to it) to happen, you've gotta have access to the stuff your creative self is going to put together.  Limiting the variety of input, say, to one type of blog or to readings on one side of the political spectrum, reduces the number of pieces you've got to work with.

MC goes further; in order for what you accomplish to be considered "creative" rather than "garbage" or "bullsh*t" you have to also have a wide range of information on the field.  To apply this to writing: you've surely read the advice of experts that, to write a book in, say, paranormal romance, you can't just read Twilight.  Right?  You have to be well-read in the genre as it stands, having experienced it from all sorts of angles.  That's what MC is referring to by knowing the field in order to successfully complete either step four, evaluation, or five, elaboration. 

The elaboration step is, he admits, the hardest one.  That's where, once you've done your creatively creative creation of creativity, you sell it to others.  In writing, it's where you query the crap out of agents.  But for this to happen, you have to know the field.  You have to have not only been deluged with information on your genre, but you also have to have immersed yourself in information on writing queries as well as on agents and their particular--um, particularities.  Their peculiar peculiarities.  You have to read a bazillion blogs, in other words, which if you wait till after you're done writing your novel masterpiece will take you longer than it would take to write another novel masterpiece.

That said, though, there's the interesting--MC calls it "dark"--space-time collision of ideas he identifies as incubation.  He basically suggests that it's up to the creator as to what this phase looks like.  This I can see being the source of Mora's Enjoy Quiet chapter.  Sometimes they even tell us to "sleep on it" in regards to creative efforts, a practice that shuts down inputs temporarily and allows the creative muscles time to flex on their own to create something entirely new out of the quagmire.  In reading the description of this, I can identify with RG.  Sometimes when you're trying to create, your inner creator needs a gatekeeper.

On the other hand, I always have the words of Konrath swimming around the recesses of my memory.  It was the first post of his that I read that exhorted me to quit reading his (damn) posts.  Quit blogging, quit Facebooking, and just. Write.  Damn.  Books.  But Konrath seems to be taking it too far in his recommendation. In order to maintain a level of creativity, the brain has to have some fresh input every so often.

I guess, then, the idea of maintaining a limit on the amount of information you take in can be good, or it can be bad, depending on the stage of creativity you're parked in.

What do you think?  Do you find you need periods of increased or decreased input?  Or do you find the need for both at times?


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